When I confront my writing students about plagiarizing, they usually launch the same series of defenses and in roughly the same order:
- It’s just a coincidence that I had the same exact idea.
- I did read that book, article and/or see the movie, and I must have copied parts of it without realizing.
- Did you even notice all the places in their work that are different? Shouldn’t I get some credit?
- How dare you catch me cheating! (Here is where students lash out in anger.)
Recently, I’ve gotten a variation of these responses to my article —“An English Instructor Asks: Did Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD Plagiarize REAL WOMEN HAVE CURVES?—” by folks who seem super invested in defending Lady Gerwig’s honor.
For example, Ella Saldana North made the “coincidence defense” and then went on to make a hasty generalization about race:
Yeah, shame on Greta Gerwig for having a normal, relatable high school experience and writing a semi-autobiographical film about it. Come on, you can’t plagiarize a film you’ve never seen, and I’m sorry but no white people even saw Real Women Have Curves. Get over it.
A commenter on my blog focused on the similarities too, albeit with a bit more sensitivity:
How do you know that Real Women have Curves was her source? Both movies resonated with me—for different reasons. Many mothers want their daughters near. Many parents go through measures to stop said daughter from leaving—tossing acceptance letters, not correctly relaying messages, guilt tripping child…. this is a lived reality for many. This is not a unique story.
Another commenter, Charles Slocum, got angry and decided to fixate on typos (my Latino Rebels editors have since fixed them). A couple of other commenters promptly took him to task:
Charles: Typos don’t reflect well on the author or the reposters.
Mattitiyahu: Nor does missing the entirety of the point.
Kinitra: And yet none of it undermines her thesis. That this is blatant plagiarism of Women of Color’s creativity and Hollywood needs to be called out.
While anger, denial, and vitriol don’t shock me or make me any less cynical about race in America, white fragility, or undetected plagiarism that goes on in academia or the film industry, the more thoughtful comments did give me pause.
Had I accused Greta Gerwig of plagiarism too hastily or capriciously?
Did using the “P” word go too far?
And so I re-watched Real Women Have Curves, and I saw some of the things that others had pointed out—yes, Lady Bird is an almost archetypal coming-of-age-story, a Bildungsroman (the somewhat unnecessary literary term that people like to throw around to sound smart). It has elements of Joyce Carol Oates’ darker “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, a story about a young girl lured to her death by a serial killer who preys on teen girls like Connie, the protagonist whose mother is hard on her, jealous even, or threatened by the promise of Connie’s future—similar to both the mothers in Lady Bird and Real Women Have Curves. Women who view their daughters’ uniqueness as putting on airs. Women who fear losing their daughters or being eclipsed by them. My own mother was like this too. So were the mothers of some of my friends. This intense mother-daughter love/envy has been written about before and is worth exploring from the perspective of different kinds of families.
But as I watched Real Women Have Curves and felt myself becoming sympathetic to the archetypal coming-of-age argument (and several mentions of the 1999 movie Anywhere But Here), I noticed some other things:
- While continuing to apply my college’s academic honesty policy regarding plagiarism, regardless of the commonality of coming-of-age elements, I saw a case could still be made for plagiarism due to overuse “of ideas of a source, so that those ideas make up the majority of one’s work.”
- Especially if you consider the way each film is shot on location in distinct cities (more on this shortly), the Lady Bird scene between mother and daughter in the bathroom after LB loses her virginity, the mediator father who secretly helps LB apply for colleges, and the final scene in which LB’s mother refuses to say goodbye—all these major elements of Lady Bird seem lifted from Real Women Have Curves, and in my opinion, combined with the cinematic style, do “make up the majority of one’s work.”
- One could argue that the insertion of just the right amount of differences (one’s own cultural/class background, one’s own city, one’s own charismatic brand of quirk) is a clever way to disguise a work that plagiarizes a ground-breaking work of another that did not “get the recognition that it deserves” in order to pass the work off as fresh and unique.
- Having not seen Real Women Have Curves in many years, one of the first things I noticed this time around is how similarly Lady Bird and Real Women Have Curves look cinematically. Both appear to be “love letters” to their respective settings: Sacramento and East LA. Like Real Women Have Curves, Lady Bird is shot on location and utilizes wide shots of each respective setting as showpiece.
- And then I thought about dystopian literature, a genre in which I specialize. I’ve always admired dystopian literature for doing something that Gerwig has failed to do—write an homage to works that came before (whether Real Women Have Curves or Anywhere But Here, or even Spanglish). Works that inspired her work. Work that makes creating an homage an art form in and of itself by calling out works that inspired hers in a way that is obvious and respectful.
In interviews about her film, Gerwig says many things that support my suspicions of a cover-up. She speaks a lot about lines from the movie that just came to her, characters who she discovered along the way. A recent Rolling Stone article discusses Gerwig’s desire to create a movie (whose original title was Mothers and Daughters) about the idea of “home,” and she points out that while aspects of the film are autobiographical, much of the movie is not:
And despite the fact that she shares the same capital-of-California hometown and teenage-years era (the early 2000s) as her creator, Lady Bird is not a replica of what Gerwig was like at that age.
“I really colored within the lines,” Gerwig says about her formative years. “Writing this character was an exploration of all these things I didn’t have access to or I couldn’t be. In that way, it almost felt like this fairy-tale invention of a deeply flawed heroine, but one who I admire. I think she shows courage and a lot of character even when she’s flailing.
In an Entertainment Weekly article, Gerwig says, “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it all rhymed with the truth.”
So what’s my point?
Do I really know for sure that Greta Gerwig plagiarized Real Women Have Curves or even Anywhere But Here? I don’t, but I do know that many white folks hate even hearing about other white folks being accused of racism or racial inequality, or stealing people, land, or unique ideas from people of color that they’d like to be credited for creating or discovering.
And I know that when I apply the rules of plagiarism in academia, as I would as a writing instructor, it appears Gerwig does. I also know that a surprising number of students in America plagiarize with little care for the true purpose of writing instruction —learning to think and write critically and creatively about the ideas of another— while never learning to do the critical thinking that is necessary to be a fully functioning citizen of a republic. And it’s not uncommon for a savvier student to have an unformed idea about a text that they read and search for a published essay that has not been widely read or recognized and that clearly articulates their idea with a fully-formed thesis, and to steal that idea for their own essay. This student who values creative ideas —but either doesn’t have many of their own, or is too busy to form one— will write an essay that contains original material, yet it will be based on someone else’s idea or intellectual property.
I’m not Gerwig’s writing instructor, but I can’t help but wondering if she’s not like one of these savvy students who will wind up being even more celebrated for her unique idea, that even if not plagiarized, is not that unique after all.
Michelle Cruz Gonzales, a Xicana writer, writes memoir and fiction. Born in East LA in 1969, MCG grew up in Tuolumne, a tiny California Gold Rush town. She played drums and wrote lyrics for three bands during the 1980s and 1990s: Bitch Fight, Spitboy, and Instant Gir. Currently, MCG is at work on a satirical novel about forced intermarriage between whites and Mexicans for the purpose of creating a race of beautiful, hardworking people. She lives with her husband, son, and their three Mexican dogs in Oakland, California. She tweets from @XicanaBrava.